NBA / Jul 21, 2011 / 12:00 pm

The Best Team That Never Was

Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson, Dime #37

Imagine what could’ve been. Imagine all that would’ve been different in the NBA. San Antonio’s run could’ve easily ended three or four years ago. The Lakers might still be fighting to get back on top. Would New York basketball have ever come back?

Things would be so different. Everything would be different. Maybe Dirk and Dallas would’ve never needed this spring to redefine their image because their initial 2006 playoff collapse would’ve never happened. The Celtics probably still would’ve come together but who knows if even their vaunted defense could’ve stopped this juggernaut?

Back in 2005, the Phoenix Suns changed the game with their “Seven Seconds or Less” offense. It was new and so inventive that it made it okay to eventually vote a point guard who didn’t play defense and never won in the playoffs into two straight MVPs. Up until that point, the NBA was still struggling to emerge from the aftermath of the blood ball that had dominated the ’90s and even into the early part of the next decade. But with new rule changes put into place to speed up the game, it gave Phoenix a perfect audience/platform to showcase their gifts.

So in just one season, the Suns rode a newly-stolen Steve Nash, the jaw-dropping explosiveness of Amar’e Stoudemire, the versatility of Shawn Marion and the perimeter shooting of Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson to a 33-game turnaround. Their offensive rating spiked over 13 points as they outscored everyone by nearly eight a game throughout the regular season.

But during Phoenix’s entire run – if you want to call it that – there was always a feeling looming just over the desert: this Suns team should be – and should’ve been – so much better. It was all a crapshoot with Phoenix’s front office, with Robert Sarver always at the head of the table. One minute, they would be preaching finances. The next, they would be throwing $42 million at Quentin Richardson. One minute they’d be preaching more emphasis on defense. The next, they would be giving away Kurt Thomas. Over and over it went for Phoenix. Defense always an issue because no one would spend (smartly) to surround the core. Depth always an issue because no one would spend (smartly) to surround the core.

In 2005, their four best players were a 24-year-old swingman, a 23-year-old freak of force inside, a 26-year-old Swiss Army knife and a point guard turning 31 (who now seems to be able to play until he’s 40). Has there been a better, or more promising, quartet of teammates since the 1980s? I don’t think so. We’ve had teams with four great players, but none so young, none so athletic and none so perfectly balanced.

Now take a look at the draft. After their home run of a pick with the infamous Zarko Cabarkapa in 2003 at No. 17, Phoenix’s next three drafts yielded them Luol Deng, Nate Robinson, Marcin Gortat, Rajon Rondo, Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez, the Suns constantly trading their picks for future picks down the road (they could’ve stopped at ANY time and gotten a decent player). Only ONE of those players ever played for them, and that was Gortat. The only problem was he didn’t come back to the desert until 2010 (he was initially traded for, yup, future cash considerations). (As Bill Simmons loves to point out: “They downgraded from Deng or Iguodala to Rondo to Fernandez to nothing…”) From 2005-2010, the Suns won at least 54 games in five of six seasons, but yet failed to reach the Finals even once because their front office decided it was best to piss off an entire fanbase and fill out their bench with players like Steven Hunter, Eddie House, Marcus Banks and Brian Skinner. Maybe that could’ve been semi-explainable had the owners been complete cheapskates. We would’ve still gotten on them, but at least decisions would’ve been consistent. They’d be our cheap friends: we can’t stand going out with them, but at least we know ahead of time what to expect.

No, the team swung and whiffed on three or four signings, blowing money that should’ve been going to players like Johnson and any number of rookies that they decided to keep (Deng or Rondo, etc.) instead on people like Quentin Richardson, Banks and Diaw (these three players alone were given $112 million by the Suns from the summer of 2004 until the fall of 2006). Diaw was the only one who ever produced on the court, but showed quite obviously that he could never fit in with Stoudemire.

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  • Scott

    Would have been one of the greatest run-n-gun teams ever

  • http://www.dimemag.com Dylan Murphy

    What I don’t get is the constant trading of draft picks. The NBA has a rookie salary scale. You barely have to shell out money for four years.

  • http://www.dimemag.com/author/kevin Kevin Zimmerman

    Don’t quote me on this, but I’m preettty sure Joe Johnson’s camp wanted a TOTAL $50 million contract extension that Sarver refused … ridiculous considering his newest deal.

    even if you spend money on him and have a Big Four of Nash, STAT, Marion and JJ, you can still find quality signees on the cheap(see the Miami Heat this year) and keep a draft pick or two. Probably wouldn’t work for more than a few years, but it was worth a shot.

    The funny thing is that the first year of SSOL got them to the Western Conf Finals and JJ’s broken orbital aside, they could have made the finals. And the Suns essentially blew that roster up for defense. They freaked out.

    I am sad now.

  • Celts Fan

    I agree. Sarver cost that team a title. You can’t own a team to make money, it has to be a labor of love. I get cheaping out when you’re awful, but this team was ready to win. He should be forced to sell the team.

  • teecee

    i still blame steve karr he personally killed the suns !!! he is the joe dumars of the west !!!

  • TJ 2

    i think its funny how great players cant survive on a team but now you got all these players trying to play together because they are sick of playing and playing and losing every year! its like some guys are just happy getting boatloads of money and never winning a championship! while some are starting to smarten up. that wouldve been nice if those guys couldve stayed together!

  • hahn

    ive been saying this too whenever people claim that SSOL can’t win a chip-

    the suns were SOO close and it was always injuries that prevented them from going all the way. whether it was JJ or Amare or the bogus Robert Horry hip check- circumstance always prevented them from reaching their potential.

    and while i understand that luck has a lot to do with winning a championship, i dont think its fair to say that SSOL has been proven not to work in the nba

  • nizzio

    The owner is a fucking idiot. Straight up. I’m still wondering what Nash is doing there. Leave that shithole and get yourself a title!

  • heckler

    This story starts out as pure BULLSHIT!

    this team was NEVER that good. they won a bunch of regular season games, but nothing more.

    Their style WASNT new. yall fools have short memories. The Sacto Kings had this same style offense; and it was BETTER because the Kings team had SEVERAL players who could pass. Remember, the Kings led the league in scoring at 107pts per game!

    Not to mention, Don Nelson in Dallas and GS had an equally good uptempo offense; and so did Denver some of those years. Look it up….

    Robert Starver did NOT cost this team any championships by not spending. Mike D’Antoni cost the team by not being willing to play his young players and not changing up his style.
    he played everyone out of position; played a small lineup; no emphasis on defense; starters played too many minutes and burned out; he held grudges with players through the media etc..etc…etc..
    in 2007, they werent going to beat the Spurs even without all the suspensions. Didnt they lose game 1 of that series on their homecourt with their full core anyway?
    ..dont blame managment when the players are winning 50-60 games a year and say management aint helping.

    Face the facts, the team just wasnt good enough. Plain and simple. And, to me, it showed early on. It showed in 2006 when they couldnt beat a Dallas team that lined up devin harris, jason terry, jerry stack, dirk and erick dampier.
    If Phoenix couldnt beat them, then there were NEVER going to go to the Finals.

    so to answer the question…NO. this is NOT the best team that never was. not even close to it.

    the only part of this that is suffering to the casual fan (not phoenix sun fans) is that from 2005-2008 we should have seen at least ONE Phoenix Suns vs Detroit Pistons finals matchup.

    It would have ended speculation of offense vs defense and which actually wins when it counts the most. we missed out on:

    steve nash vs chauncey billips
    raja bell vs richard hamilton
    shawn marion vs tayshaun prince
    boris diaw vs rasheed wallace
    amare stoudemire vs ben wallace

    imagine what 6 or 7 games of those matchups would have been like. dumbass larry brown vs dumb(er)ass mike d’antoni.

  • hahn

    heckler…none of your points support your proposition that the suns werent that good.

    first off, it doesn’t matter if they weren’t the first to play fast- they did it well and enjoyed much success. so what relevance does nellie ball and sacto have to the suns?

    second, the whole celtics “no one has ever beat our starting five” thing also goes for the suns. they never had a full squad to go to battle with. that first year JJ had his eye socket broken, then amare had microfracture, then amare and diaw were suspended for a game, then amare got injured again (i think).

    in light of all those events, how can you say that “the team just wasn’t good enough”? they never got to show how good they were

  • Rainman

    i as a Suns fan have always said the same thing, had Joe Johnson not got injured in 05 with that freak cheek bone injury, waht then? what if Management didnt make dumb trades liek trade Joe Johnson for Boris Diaw(Who Nash still made look good)? Nash, Johnson, Matrix, Amare, (didnt really matter who u put at center with those 4, Steve Hunter? solid D and Rebounding, does his job good).

    Multiple Rings, Nash would be a top 3 PG, instead of a tough to make it into the top 5 PG.

    i Blame it on Management, And Robert Horry for that push.

    And Artest, for that fluke layup in game 5. (although that had nothing to do with the possibility of a great team not happening, that was all management)

  • Rainman

    Also, management traded picks that becaem Luol Deng, Rondo, and a few other fringe All stars. Ridiculous.

  • Rainman

    @ Heckler: 107 a game? the Suns were consistently over 110 a game lol.

    The Kings were great, but got screwed by the Lakers consistently. (refs, nuff said)

    The Suns were great too, but got screwed by the Spurs consistently( bogus hip check by horry, bad calls) and Injuries.

    Come on dude.

  • Rainman

    Also, in 2007, they were up 3-2 when they won the game that Nash got hip checked in. Amare got suspended, as well as a few others, The next game, an Elimination game, the Suns lost by ONE. Ur telling me that had Amare not played, he woulda made at least a one point difference to beat them out?

    The next game was also a close game, but they were burned out at that poit, still easily coulda won.

    EVERYONE KNOWS The Suns were the Best team in the NBA that year, The Spurs went on to crush an inexperienced Hornets team in the conference finals, and Swept the Cavs. All thanks to Robbert Horry’s hip check, that coulda easily been the Suns.

  • robzilla

    The Suns of 2005 WERE that good. I remember JJ coming back and starting to get his rhythm. He KILLED my SPURS that year. But by the time he came back into the fray, the noose was already around the Suns neck.
    And stop with the Robert Horry hip check. Nash is a cold-blooded KILLER but he can also be a whiny little BIOTCH who acts with the best of ‘em. Tell your squad to keep their asses on the bench. You are ALWAYS responsible for your actions. No matter if it’s a reaction to someone else.
    And BTW, no defense no title. Just ask the 2010 Mavericks.

  • Rainman

    Btw, game one was lost after the Suns had the lead late, and Nash Hurt his nose on PArkers head, And was forced to sit out late as they gave up the lead and the game without Nash, who was so valuable to them. He tried to come out numerous times to play through it, but they wouldnt allow it.

    If Nash had played, they woulda kept the lead and won game one.

    Dont remember that huh? check ur history.

    injuries as i said, was another big thing, as we ll as suspensions.

  • robzilla

    *2011

  • Rainman

    @ Robzilla: yeah Nash milked it lol, but u cant say the suspensions were the deciding factor on the series based on what i said above…

  • Rainman

    “and if Ron Artest doesn’t make a lucky shot, I’m betting Phoenix wins one title in their somewhere”

    im still kicking myself over that lol

  • sh!tfaced

    The 2011-12 Season.

    Soon to be The Best Season That Never Was…

  • heckler

    @ Hahn
    I never said the Suns were the first. the article referred to the Suns bringing highpowered offense back to the nba. so I had to remind yall that highpowered offense was already in the league; yall memories are weak. so i had to remind yall. so thats what nellie and sacto had to do with the suns offense. does that answer your question?

    as for as none of my points are valid….hahaha lol. well, i’ll let the Suns playoff outcomes speak for me on that. their performance proves my point.

    @ Rainman
    tell me about it. coulda, shoulda, woulda. but didnt.
    blah blah blah. and if a top seeded team cant keep a lead late on its own homecourt with 2 other allstars on the court, then shit, you DONT deserve to win.

    @ the rest of you
    QUIT your bitching about a hip check. that Suns team could NEVER beat the Spurs in a playoff series. mainly because Steve Nash BITCHED out by not defending tony parker and setting the tone that the team (and its star player) had weak will.
    when your the defending MVP, and an allstar level player on the opposing team plays your position, YOU CHECK HIM ON DEFENSE. but nah…the Suns bitched out and had Nash guarding Bruce Bowen. but none of yall talk about that. that sends a HUGE message to the rest of the team. instead yall talk about management failing the team, hip checks and suspensions and nonesense.

  • Detroit Dave

    That team would have gotten smashed by the Pistons in 2005. Could you imagine an even younger Amare attempting to play defense against an in-shape Rasheed Wallace? I remember watching a game a few years ago and the outta shape Sheek aka Roscoe was hitting fall away after fall away over a helpless Amare.

  • LakeShow84

    @ Heckler

    Lemme be the first to say.. your reaching with Nash being the reason the Suns lost because he wouldnt check TP..

    Shit teams do that kinda cross matchin up all day.. and Nash would NAIL DAGGERS against the Spurs so there goes all ur wishy washy “he isnt a leader” feelings right there..

    The reason why the Suns lost is because, IN ALL SPORTS DAMN NEAR,

    Great Defense will always trump great offense when its all on the line.. ALWAYS..

    Shit them foo’s bought into defense right after D’Antoni left and made it back to the WCF as a SHELL of their former selves..

    Infuse that 05-06 Phoenix team with ANY bit of defensive discipline and they win a chip..

    And regarding the article yes the 2008 Celtics wouldve beaten them lol best defense the league has seen in a while..

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Quiznakes K Dizzle

    LMAO @ “QUIT your bitching about a hip check. that Suns team could NEVER beat the Spurs in a playoff series. mainly because Steve Nash BITCHED out by not defending tony parker and setting the tone that the team (and its star player) had weak will.”

    That’s the most ridiculous piece I’ve read in weeks.
    Point blank: Steve Nash cannot guard Tony Parker on his best day. Why waste his energy when you got a freaks like Marion n Johnson who can guard positions 1-4?
    Nash wasn’t the reaason the Suns lost that series.
    Once again, injuries, suspensions and general bad luck cost the Suns that season.
    Weak will? Was I the only one who saw Nash tryin to come back into the game as blood was explodin out his nose?
    Do better…

  • iCARNACKi

    Keeping JJ, Kurt Thomas and those draft picks would have been key. All that happens; yeah they would’ve probably managed to win a title.

    I ALWAYS wondered why they were constantly trading draft picks for cash considerations… ridiculous… the league should cut that shit out.

    Nash is one of the few players who’s contributions on offense make up for his complete lack of defense. So to say that he didn’t guard Parker is ridiculous… he can’t guard Parker… why waste energy trying?

  • ripcityfanboy

    Didn’t look into what the bench could have been, but the Blazers starting five in ’07/’08 could have been:

    D Will/CP3 (traded ’05 3rd pick to Utah for 6th pick Martell Webster)
    B Roy (still had knees back then)
    Durant (still hurts to think about)
    LA (might have broken out earlier with D Will or CP3 throwing him lobs, but still a decent 4th option anyway)
    Pryzbilla (OK, nothing special, but he grabbed rebounds and blocked shots)

    Don’t know how they would have stacked up against these other hypothetical superteams, but as a Portland fan, I’ve been daydreaming about that lineup during the lockout with nothing better to do.

  • Ravi

    Sarver actually offered to match Atlanta’s max offer in the summer of 05. Johnson wanted out; he wanted to be the main option. He asked Sarver to decline to match, and that is why the sign and trade happened.

    Still…as a Suns fan, it’s almost too depressing to think about the potential dynasty we could have had.

  • Doc

    they wouldnt have won shit

  • DarkHorse

    I wonder how Rajon Rondo would have developed had he backed up Steve Nash. Would Rondo still have developed into an all-star caliber player behind Nash? Had the Suns kept Rondo, Nate Robinson Luol Deng and Joe Johnson, that team would not only have been the most ridiculously stacked team, but the most entertaining team of all time! Can you imagine Steve Nash throwing up oops to Nate Robinson?

    rip city, I dont think the Blazers would have been able to pick up Durant if they took CP3 or D-Will because the probably would have had too good of a record to land the top pick, but who knows? Also, it would have been interesting to see how Brandon Roy would have coexisted with an all league point guard, seeing as how he struggled to fit in with Andre Miller, who’s a solid vet, but by no means an all-star.

  • DarkHorse

    I wonder how Rajon Rondo would have developed had he backed up Steve Nash. Would Rondo still have developed into an all-star caliber player behind Nash? Had the Suns kept Rondo, Nate Robinson Luol Deng and Joe Johnson, that team would not only have been the most ridiculously stacked team, but the most entertaining team of all time! Can you imagine Steve Nash throwing up oops to Nate Robinson?

  • DarkHorse

    rip city, I dont think the Blazers would have been able to pick up Durant if they took CP3 or D-Will because the probably would have had too good of a record to land the top pick, but who knows? Also, it would have been interesting to see how Brandon Roy would have coexisted with an all league point guard, seeing as how he struggled to fit in with Andre Miller, who’s a solid vet, but by no means an all-star.

  • DarkHorse

    Detroit could have been a DYNASTY had they drafted D-Wade, Melo, or Bosh instead of Darko. Their lineup could have been:

    pg Chauncey Billups
    sg Rip Hamilton/ D-Wade
    sf Tayshaun Prince
    pf Sheed
    c Ben Wallace

    or
    pg Chauncey Billups
    sg Rip Hamilton
    sf Melo/Tayshaun Prince
    pf Sheed
    c Ben Wallace

    or
    pg Chauncey Billups
    sg Rip Hamilton
    sf Tayshaun Prince
    pf Sheed/Bosh
    c Ben Wallace

    But who knows? Larry Brown has been known to destroy rookies so maybe D-Wade, Melo or Bosh would have turned out to be scrubs playing for Larry Brown. Larry Brown would probably have tried to make D-Wade into a pass first point guard with his “Play the Right Way” bullshit. Maybe if Darko was drafted in a different team and played meaningful minutes right off the bat he would have turned into the Serbian Tim Duncan.

  • Krayzie

    @ Heckler

    Phx lost to the Mavs in 06 in 6 games without Amare, had he played that year and that series they would have cruised past the Mavs in 5.

  • Ian

    rainman
    what the f are you talking about up 3 to 2??
    the hip check game was game 4. the suns went 2 and 3 vs the spurs that series with amare and nash and everyone. 05 was a 4 1 series win for the spurs who was going to change that ?? joe johnson hahah big game johnson?? nahhh.

    that only thing that should a been dif is the fisher 0.
    4 shot and the manu foul on dirk in game 7 that gives the spurs 5 straight titles.

  • Ian

    gotta love how everyone here is talking about amare and johnson like they are the ultimate winners. hell blame the hip check on nash he fell down like he got shot.

  • Ian

    btw rainman it was utah not the hornets in the conference finals damn man google use it.

  • Ian

    oh and nash isnt the reason the lost hes the reason they got that far. im on the side of why waste energy chasing parker if he still gonna drop 30?

  • Luigi

    mann. that suns team of Nash. Bell. JJ. Matrix. Amare. were sick on NBA Live 06 haha. but in all honesty. not too long ago. a squad with Nash (coming off 2nd MVP). J-Rich. Bell. Matrix. Amare were ILLEGAL to use in NBA 2k8, well atleast for me that is. but when they traded Matrix for Shaq, it was never the same…